A few days ago, I was leaving Anaheim, California. The work of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church was good and important, but I was ready to depart that region. The setting –a convention center in Anaheim—seemed artificial and unseasoned, without a history or developed character. In fact, the character of the place was Disneyland; how much wisdom or character can one hope to imbibe from an amusement park?
Nevertheless, that setting was my home for two weeks. My routine was the same. Rise early, prepare for committee meetings, encounter ideas and faith and people and agendas, walk from one air-conditioned room to another, ride on escalators and elevators, eat processed food quickly and absently, sit on the legislative floor and pay attention, do all this some more, and then try to be asleep by 11:00 so I could rise again at 5:00 am.
I must admit that, for all its sterility, the Anaheim Convention Center, with two central hotels, was a comfortable place to gather and do business. Yes, it was artificial; yes, it was also mechanically efficient for us.
Then, one day after I left Anaheim, I was sitting on a dock in Canada with my father, just after sunset. Since my childhood, I have travelled annually to that lake, with its rustic cabins and primitive challenges. The deep green hemlocks and pines, the rich white birch trees, the cold black water, the open sky, all overwhelm any human activity; artificial devices are weak and meager here. It is easy to be mesmerized by the sky.
With a few others, my father and I peered eagerly into the northwest horizon, waiting and watching. A slight cold front was breaking up the overcast day. The air was chilly, but the sky had cleared above some post sunset clouds.
Then, suddenly, we saw it. The International Space Station was soaring over the north. The orange white glow was speeding at 17,000 miles per hour, 405 miles away from us. In the twilight, only Vega and a couple of other stars were beginning to appear. But, as we focused on this man-made intrusion into space, we also made out distant objects way beyond humanity’s foray into the heavens.
I have watched that northern horizon many a night here in Ontario. I have seen amazing light shows from the Aurora Borealis. It is always beautiful. If “artificial” means man-made, or simulated, or forced, or contrived, then this part of God’s creation is the very antithesis of “artificial.”
But for humanity, “artificial” is all we have. All we can muster, by definition, are man-made attempts and offerings. In fact, the International Space Station, a true modern marvel, is the very height of “artificial.” It is a man-made contrivance, inserted into the far reaches of God’s creation. Though it is the result of creative science, it is also a piece of art, like a paint stroke across the sky’s canvas.
Yes, the International Space Station is a work of art. It reminds me of a deeper meaning to the word “artificial.” Etymologically, “artificial” can mean “belonging to art,’ or “made by art.” At our best, we human beings create from artistic desire. We plan, and build, and explore, with artistic visions.
One of the many marvels about the space station is that it is also a work of art by committee. It has been added to, and revised, and corrected more times than…well, more times than an urban office building, or an old house, or… a piece of government legislation.
The old adage is that one will never eat sausage again after one has seen the inside of a sausage factory and how the stuff is actually made. One will never want to enter politics after witnessing the journey of a single piece of legislation. One will never want to go to church again after serving on a vestry or board of elders.
But those factories and legislatures and vestries are all we have. All we have are artificial attempts, human-made pieces of art, often assembled by committee, to witness to truth and grace in the world. That’s what the General Convention of the Episcopal Church was. Yes, it was set in an artificial place (a place designed to work!), it was committee after committee, it was the work of humanity. I hope and pray, nonetheless, that it has served us well.
Artificial devices are all we have on this earth, and all we have above the earth. At their best, they are truly works of art, inspired by glorious visions. For all our foibles, the Episcopal Church has a glorious vision; we want to be orthodox and generous, faithful and honest. We want to be true to God and to God’s creation. We are human beings, but we are on the dock straining to see grace over the horizon. We are human beings, but we have glimpsed divine grace in the twilight.
(This article also appeared at a website named Episcopal Cafe (here), for which I write from time to time.)